Topical aminolevulinic acid is converted into a potent photosensitizer, protoporphyrin, in human hair follicles and sebaceous glands. Photodynamic therapy with topical aminolevulinic acid was tested for the treatment of acne vulgaris, in an open-label prospective human study. Each of 22 subjects with acne on the back was treated in four sites with aminolevulinic acid plus red light, aminolevulinic acid alone, light alone, and untreated control. Half of the subjects were treated once; half were treated four times. Twenty percent topical aminolevulinic acid was applied with 3 h occlusion, and 150 J per cm2 broad-band light (550-700 nm) was given. Sebum excretion rate and auto-fluorescence from follicular bacteria were measured before, and 2, 3, 10, and 20 wk after, treatment. Histologic changes and protoporphyrin synthesis in pilosebaceous units were observed from skin biopsies. Aminolevulinic acid plus red light caused a transient acne-like folliculitis. Sebum excretion was eliminated for several weeks, and decreased for 20 wk after photodynamic therapy; multiple treatments caused greater suppression of sebum. Bacterial porphyrin fluorescence was also suppressed by photodynamic therapy. On histology, sebaceous glands showed acute damage and were smaller 20 wk after photodynamic therapy. There was clinical and statistically significant clearance of inflammatory acne by aminolevulinic acid plus red light, for at least 20 wk after multiple treatments and 10 wk after a single treatment. Transient hyperpigmentation, superficial exfoliation, and crusting were observed, which cleared without scarring. Topical aminolevulinic acid plus red light is an effective treatment of acne vulgaris, associated with significant side-effects. Aminolevulinic acid plus red light causes phototoxicity to sebaceous follicles, prolonged suppression of sebaceous gland function, and apparent decrease in follicular bacteria after photodynamic therapy. Potentially, aminolevulinic acid plus red light may be useful for some patients with acne.